Holt, Geraldene, The Independent (London, England)
THE OXFORD Symposium on Food and Cooking began its scholarly deliberations last autumn with a lively debate about nouvelle cuisine. Who originated it? And where, and why? We puzzled and argued, we declaimed and condemned, and at times - appropriately enough - we generated rather more heat than light on the subject.
What is clear, though, is that this century's nouvelle cuisine (earlier times witnessed similar revolutionary ideas) is a culinary movement based on a less rich style of cooking that influenced, in particular, the world of French haute cuisine from the mid-1970s to the present day. Inspired in part by oriental cooking, it is characterised by a highly stylised presentation and a respect for sparkling, fresh, high-quality ingredients prepared in relatively simple ways which do not mask their flavour.
For devotees of nouvelle cuisine, steaming therefore became a favoured method. High-profile chefs installed state-of-the-art steam ovens in their restaurants and lesser mortals bought in expensive Chinese steamers.
Of course, food has been steamed for decades in Britain, though the method was reserved for the cooking of "the sickroom and for invalids" - as the cookery books of the 20s and 30s put it - or for making substantial steamed puddings such as steak and kidney. In fact, this English method is more akin to baking in a bain-marie, because the food container is in contact with the simmering water, and devised for cooks with no oven.
Oriental steaming, though, is a beautifully simple method. One pan with holes is balanced upon or inside another containing simmering water. Food is placed in the top pan, covered with a lid, and fixed over the lower pan containing an inch or so of boiling water. The assembly is placed over moderate to high heat - so the water does not go off the boil - for as long as it takes the food to cook.
In China the steamer has been an important utensil since neolithic times, when it was made from fired clay. Yan-kit So, in her masterly book Classic Food of China (Macmillan pounds 25), writes that the steamer was known as the "zeng" and the three-legged base was the "li": "Sat over a fire, water was boiled or rice was cooked in the li, and the steam that rose up through the perforated bottom of the zeng cooked the food resting in there." Yan- kit So tells the story of the celebrated three-tier bronze zeng that was one of the burial artefacts of Lady Hao during the second half of the Shang dynasty. Excavated in 1976, this ancient pan is now in a Peking museum.
A modern Chinese bamboo steamer is a pleasing and inexpensive utensil. I use one for cooking vegetables and fish. When using a steamer, it is vital to retain as much flavour as possible in the food. This can easily be lost since, as the steam rises through the holes, moisture from the food percolates down through it, and flavour and nutrients end up in the simmering water. The old Chinese practice of cooking rice in the lower part of a steamer makes sense; the rice absorbs any flavour leached from the food above.
In the west we usually steam food over simmering water, so it's best to know how to do it properly. As in all cooking, the size and quantity of ingredients affect its cooking time. Some vegetables - such as those still in their skins, like baby carrots and small new potatoes - can be placed straight in the steaming basket. …
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Publication information: Article title: Kitchenalia. Contributors: Holt, Geraldene - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: February 4, 1996. Page number: 43. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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